Summer vacation is coming to its end and many kids are both excited and disappointed as they return to school. As preparations are made, supplies purchased, and everything else is done to get ready for school, many parents struggle to plan how to feed their families lunch each day. Grocery shelves are lined with colorful boxes and bags of many foods that they are hoping will become part of your school lunch routine, and cafeteria workers are getting their kitchens ready to cook for the masses. As you plan your strategy for lunches for the school year, there are many things to consider. By choosing to prepare your own meals you will be able to have the best of most options.
What is “in” the lunches?
Though a bright cheerful box may entice some shoppers, these often have ingredient lists that should be considered before a purchase is made. The value of food is more than just the monetary price; this also includes the nutrition each dish contains. Consider calories, sodium, fat content and preservatives, and remember, the ingredients listed matter as well. You can visit http://www.choosemyplate.gov/ to find the recommended daily intake of nutrients for every age and body type. It is useful to know how much of what you should be eating so you can keep lunch in perspective. It is easy to develop the mindset that lunch on the go or away from home doesn’t matter as much nutritionally by thinking “We’ll make up for it later with a healthy dinner.” Lunch does, however, matter a great deal. For some children, food coloring, preservatives, and other ingredients have been linked in studies to changes in behavior and challenges concentrating (http://www.cspinet.org/fooddyes/ ). An inadequately balanced lunch can leave you tired and hungry by midafternoon. Be sure to include protein and fiber since they can help you feel satisfied longer.
How to hold the lunches?
Lunch boxes are much more than a chance to show the world who your favorite cartoon character is. They have the important responsibility of holding and protecting your lunch until it is time to eat it. It doesn’t matter how delicious and nutritious your lunch or any meal is if you’ve stored it improperly and it is harboring bacteria. Remember that temperature matters. For warm dishes that are packed hot (i.e. insulated containers of soup or chili) you will want the food to be stored at 140°F or warmer so bacteria won’t grow. For cold options like sandwich meats, salads, and other things that are normally stored in your refrigerator, use cold packs and insulation to keep the stored temperature at 40°F or less. If you are fortunate enough to have a refrigerator available for storage during the morning, use it. The better you do at storing your food, the higher the quality it will maintain until you are ready to eat it.
It is important to have the right containers to store the food within your lunch box (or bag). They should be airtight and easy to open if your kids will be using them. Though a popular lunch brand has created a strong identity with the neat divided trays they package their food in, their nutrition is lacking (so much that in some schools they are banned) and they are not very economical. It is easy to learn from their success and create better packaging for the meals we pack. Kids of all ages enjoy neatly packed dishes that give you the option of picking and choosing the flavors you like. Crackers, cheeses, fruit, nuts, and any other small bites that can be packed neatly in small containers can create a nice menu for you to enjoy during lunch. Many wonderful options for containers now exist. Check your local grocery store and big box store for convenient containers that are just the right size and shape to hold the foods you like. If you find containers that make it a pleasure to make and take lunch, you will be more likely to do so.
What to drink with lunches?
Juice boxes, soft drinks, even bottled water can all add up financially, creating quite an investment. Some of these options are full of empty calories, artificial ingredients, or sugars; and the disposable containers they come in create a lot of waste. A wonderful alternative is to invest in a re-usable container that can double as an ice pack for your lunch. With your own container, you can make your own iced tea, infused waters, or juices. By having the freedom to blend your own, you can incorporate more of what you like: green tea, herbal tea, citrus water, mint water, cucumber water, diluted juice, etc.
How to make lunch less work?
The proper containers are a big step in the right direction when it comes to preparing your lunch. Other great ideas to make things easier are:
- Include a piece of whole fruit in every lunch (bananas, easy to peel oranges, apples, pears, plums, nectarines, grapes, etc.); not only will it be nutritious, but it is also easy to eat on the run or grab quickly.
- Organize and categorize what you want in every lunch. It is nice to have a basket of fruit options, a basket of healthy salty options (crackers, nuts, pretzels, etc.), a choice of protein (cheese, meats, etc.), and any other items you want on a regular basis. If the food you choose requires refrigeration, you can designate a refrigerator drawer or plastic container to hold them so they are easy to grab and go. Once you are organized in this way, it will be so much easier to grab and go. You can also use this as a great way to involve the kids in packing their own lunch by instructing them to “choose one of each category”.
- Prepare during the weekend for the week ahead. Some things can be made in advance and frozen for future use–the leftover chicken can be cubed and frozen for a later salad, some sandwiches freeze well (peanut butter and jelly is a great example), soups and other options also work well. Cut up fresh vegetables to use at the beginning of the week with a dip or later in the week, cooked as a soup, stir-fry, or a pasta dish. Planning ahead will make it so much easier and can help prevent desperation decisions (that are less healthy) and waste from over buying.
How to make lunch for less?
By packaging your own meal you will have more nutrition and more value for your investment. Though the pre-packaged and premade options may seem convenient and like a minor investment, they are consistently more expensive than buying the ingredients and assembling your own. Rather than paying for the boxes, bags, and labels on the pre-packaged food, you can re-use your own containers and fill them with food that is more nutritious, more fresh and higher quality. Because school cafeterias are often subsidized by government money, they do seem like a good value for the price. However, the food they serve is often less appealing than it sounds and may or may not have healthy options your kids will eat. By filling your own bottle you will also save a great deal on the beverages you drink.
A few final ideas:
- Make your own snack mixes by combining some of your family favorites with ingredients like dried fruit and nuts. They can also be quite nutritious.
- Frozen vegetables can be mixed with a few ingredients to make a quick and tasty salad. Green peas, corn, and other vegetables are blanched before freezing so they are ready to mix in or toss on other ingredients and make an easy salad.
- Canned beans can be a terrific finger food to munch on. Drain, rinse, and eat kidney beans, garbanzo beans, or any other favorite. Because they are packed with fiber and protein, they are wonderful for you.
- Don’t forget to add a special “treat”. A note of encouragement, stickers, or a something to make them smile at lunchtime is always appreciated.